Music Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber
Charles E. Brewer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0276


During his lifetime, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern (b. 1644–d. 1704) was widely recognized as one of the foremost performers on the violin, and his published instrumental music helped spread his reputation, though he was criticized by some of his contemporaries for his extravagant technique and use of scordatura. Charles Burney’s comment in his 1789 General History of Music that “of all the violin players of the last century, Biber seems to have been the best, and his solos are the most difficult and most fanciful of any Music I have seen of the same period” was most likely based only on a visual examination of the original print of Biber’s 1681 violin sonatas. Aside from a few specialized studies by Guido Adler, Paul Nettl, and others, and four acknowledged works published in the Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich (two collections of music for solo violin, a mass, and a Requiem), Biber’s music was little known until the 1940s. Modern editions of the other instrumental and sacred music, both published and in manuscript, along with critical studies of both his sacred and secular compositions have significantly enhanced the appreciation of Biber’s compositional creativity. Performances of Biber’s music have also steadily increased along with the “Historically Informed Performance” movement. Since Susanne Lautenbacher’s recording of the “Mystery” Sonatas was released in 1962, there have been a further thirty-four recordings and many of Biber’s other instrumental collections now have multiple recordings available, and even the Missa Salisburgensis has been released on six recordings and two DVDs.

Life and Works

Biber’s significance as performer and composer was clear when Mattheson in 1740 provided a short biography based upon information provided by his son, Carl Heinrich Biber. Biber was born in the Bohemian town of Wartenberg (Stráž pod Ralskem, Czechia) but little is known of his early life and education. It has been suggested that he studied at the Jesuit college in Opava (Troppau), the historical capital of Bohemian Silesia. Before 1668 Biber was engaged at the court of Prince Johann Seyfried von Eggenberg (b. 1644–d. 1713) in Graz but by 1668 was employed by Prince-Bishop Carl Liechtenstein-Castelcorn (b. 1623–d. 1695) of Olomouc (Olmütz), whose personal chateau was in Kroměříž (Kremsier), where the court’s musical collection, including Biber’s autograph copies, is still housed. In the summer of 1670, Biber left this position without official leave but was soon engaged by Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg (later Cardinal) Maximilian Gandolph of Kuenburg (b. 1622–d. 1687), eventually being named Capellmeister in 1684. Biber continued under his successor, Johann Ernst Graf von Thun und Hohenstein (b. 1643–d. 1709), who promoted him to lord high steward, until his death in 1704. Having played before Emperor Leopold I, he was eventually raised to the nobility, which allowed two of his daughters, Maria Cäcilia and Anna Magdalena, to be admitted to the Nonnberg convent in Salzburg. His son, Carl Heinrich (b. 1681–d. 1749), later was also named as Salzburg Capellmeister. The first extensive discussion of Biber’s life and works was in the preface by Guido Adler to the 1898 edition of the 1681 violin sonatas (under Modern Editions: Instrumental Music).

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